Joey Bonavitacola, a 2012 graduate and former football player at Howard High School, died suddenly on Sunday, Sept. 23, Howard principal Gina Massella announced in a news release on Monday.
"The death of any member of our school community is a loss, but learning of Joey's sudden death may be especially difficult to accept," Massella said in the release.
Members of the Howard County Crisis Intervention Team, student services staff and administrators met Monday with students and staff at the Ellicott City school to provide support and guidance, according to the release.
"It was a pretty rough day at the school as can be expected when it's somebody who's not even 19 yet. It still hasn't sunk in," Howard football coach Bruce Strunk said.
The cause of death has not been released.
"We are particularly concerned about student's reactions given the sudden nature of Joey's death," Massella said in the release. "We are aware that students are reading or hearing about many different rumors on Twitter and Facebook. We have encouraged students to refrain from sharing information on social media. Spreading or sharing rumors will make this sad situation even more difficult for Joey's family and friends."
Bonavitacola, also an avid skateboarder, was a popular member of the Howard football team last year as a senior, rushing for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns, and helping the Lions win seven games and qualify for the playoffs. He was honored as a second-team all-county selection by county football coaches.
"Joey was an undersized kid who worked as hard or harder than anyone," Strunk said. "His senior year I think he weighed 138 pounds but no one had the kind of heart that he did on the field."
Ryan Wade, the starting quarterback for the 2011 Lions, remembered his classmate as an inspiration on the football field, and a friend off of it.
"Joey was an extremely unique guy," said Wade, now a member of the Albright College football team. "He was always picking people up and always demanded your best. He was a guy who always had a smile on his face and it was contagious too."
In a 39-6 playoff clinching win over Hammond last November, Bonavitacola rushed for a team-best 133 yards, including an 80-yard first-quarter touchdown run.
Bonavitacola's older brother, A.J., rushed for more than 3,000 yards at Howard and was a first team all-county selection as a senior in 2009. He is now a sophomore at Salisbury University listed on the football team's injured reserve.
Both brothers wore No. 6 for Howard High.
Wade said that since hearing the news, he has read countless memories of Bonavitacola on Twitter, not just from Howard High students and graduates, but from all across the county.
"It was really great to see how much of a family not only Howard High School, but all of Howard County, is," he said. "A consistent thing that everyone agreed upon was that we just wished we could all be together at Howard to go through this together."
The news of Bonavitacola's death came two days after Howard's football team improved to 3-1 with a 21-7 win over Centennial on Saturday. The Lions are scheduled to visit Hammond this Friday night.
Strunk said that the team had practice on Monday, just to get together and "get our minds off of it," but the practice amounted to a short walkthrough.
"We went through the motions," Strunk said. "It's going to be a rough week."
Family and friends are invited to gather at the Gary L. Kaufman Funeral Home at Meadowridge Memorial Park in Elkridge on Thursday, Sept. 27, from 5-8 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial will be offered on Friday, Sept. 28 at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Elkridge at 10 a.m.
Memorial contributions may be made in his name to the Elkridge Hurricanes, C/O Mike Lettieri, 2712 Water Wheel Ct., Ellicott City, MD 21043 or the Lions Pride Inc., C/O Howard High School Football Program, In Memory of Joey Bonavitacola, 8700 Old Annapolis Rd., Ellicott City, MD 21043.
(Funeral information from Gary L. Kaufman Funeral Home)